December of this year, America will mark the centennial of the Wright
brothers' airplane success at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina -- an achievement
regarded as the beginning of powered flight.
But if a Baptist preacher from Pittsburg
in Camp County had
been blessed with a better press agent, the centennial might have
been observed in East Texas
a year earlier.
In late 1902, at least a year before the Wright brothers soared
into the sky, an airplane designed by Rev. Burrell Cannon was flown
160 feet at Pittsburg.
But the event went largely unpublicized and it wasn't until 1976
that a state historical marker finally recognized Cannon's accomplishment.
A sawmiller and inventor, Cannon got his idea for the airship from
the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, which described a flying machine:
"The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the color
of beryl and...their appearance and their work was as it were a
wheel in the middle of a wheel."
Cannon designed his airship after studying the Biblical passage
for years, making extensive mechanical notes, and finally producing
a design around 1900. His plans featured a series of wheels, a 26-foot
wingspan, and a cluster of levers which would control the plane's
flight. The design looked more like a crude helicopter than a conventional
airplane. Cannon then convinced ten friends to invest $20,000 in
his Ezekiel Airship Manufacturing Company at $25 per share.
Built at P.W. Thorsell's foundry in Pittsburg,
the plane was flown in 1902 by Gus Stamps, a foundry employee who
worked on the contraption. Stamps and his fellow workers rolled
the plane into a pasture and decided to try it out. It flew upward
about ten feet and began to drift toward a fence before Stamps killed
the power to the four-cyclinder gas engine.
Cannon, ironically, wasn't present. He was preaching at a nearby
church. When Cannon failed to arouse additional interest in his
plane at Pittsburg,
he loaded it onto a railroad flatcar and started to St. Louis, where
the craft was to be exhibited. But a storm blew it from the flatbed
railcar near Texarkana,
destroying the machine.
Cannon built a second airship around 1911 -- some eight years after
the Wrights' flight -- but it was also destroyed when a hired pilot
flew it into the top of a telephone pole during a test flight. The
incident caused Cannon to give up on his flying machine.
From 1914 to 1921, Cannon made his home in Longview
and at the time of his death in 1923, he lived in Marshall.
Although he was 74, he was in the midst of perfecting an automated
cotton picker and boll weevil destroyer. In 1922, a fire destroyed
all of his plans for the Ezekiel Airship.
which apparently didnšt think much of the old preacher's invention
in the early 1900s, has since embraced the history of the Ezekiel
In a downtown museum, visitors will find a full-sized replica of
the plane and a tribute to its inventor.
November 20, 2003
A syndicated column in over 70 East Texas newspapers
Published with permission